The Sting of the Drone for FDL’s Book Salon Postponed

UPDATE: I wrote this intro for the FireDogLake Book Salon today at 2:00 PST, but because of the ongoing DDoS attack at FDL it needs to be rescheduled.

Richard A. Clarke’s Sting of the Drone gives us the opportunity to talk about both ethical and political decisions we need to examine in the face of new technology.  The set up:

In Washington, the Kill Committee gathers in the White House’s Situation Room to pick the next targets for the United States drone program. At an airbase just outside Las Vegas, a team of pilots, military personnel and intelligence officers follow through on the committee’s orders, finding the men who have been deemed a threat to national security and sentenced to death.

On the other side of the world, in the mountains where the drones hunt their prey, someone has decided to fight back. And not just against the unmanned planes that circle their skies, but against the Americans at home who control them.

I’ll talk about the book in a minute, but as I write this FDL is under computer attack from unknown groups for unknown reasons. Maybe it’s FDL’s support for whistleblowers or a personal grudge, but it got me thinking about other ways insiders can speak out without destroying themselves and their supporters: Fiction.

Imagine you were an insider who can’t push from the inside anymore. You know what insiders respond to and what gets their hackles up. To get your former insider insights noticed, you weave them into an entertaining story.

Fiction allows you to point out to insiders and outsiders, “Here is what might happen if you go down this path. You can’t go back in time, so listen up.”

The scenario for the book is set a few year out and the current stakes are laid out. The President explains to Winston Burrell, the National Security Advisor, how he sees the political landscape,

“Winston, I don’t want to micromanage this stuff. Just make sure we do not get attacked again. Do what you have to do. Minimize the negative press, no torture, and hold down the collateral damage to an acceptable level, but err on the side of killing the bad guys. If we fuck up trying to kill bad guys, I will be fine. If we fuck up because we didn’t kill the right bad guy and he then kills a bunch of Americans, particularly in the homeland, then I get in trouble. Understood?”

That is the overarching pressure the American characters are acting under. Clarke tries to show both insiders and outsiders as humans with all the rational, irrational and emotional reasons for actions.

Does Clarke error on the side of  showing Americans regularly doing the right things for the right reasons? I think so. Perhaps it’s because he wants to establish a connection with other insiders first, so they can hear the criticism later, “I’ve been there. I know you want credit for all the things you do right, but can’t talk about. I’m telling people what you can’t.”

Once context is established, he explains how the ideal Kill Committee works, how information is gathered, how decisions are made, who makes them, why they make them and all the many parameters that need to be met in order for an action to be taken.  I liked reading this part, it gave me confidence in the process.

Then he starts introducing all the ways things can go wrong.

Problems range from public outrage based on both correct and incorrect information, institutional inertia, human error,  technical problems, enemy set-ups and  good ol’ hubris.  At one point, after a successful mission an American drone pilot says, “We are invincible!”

Insiders get frustrated when the public focuses on flashy issues or perceived problems. As one of the Intelligence community characters says,

“There are all sorts of legitimate concerns about our drone policy being counterproductive or precedent setting, but at root, for a lot of people there is a subconscious fear of armed robots going crazy and killing humans.”

The book reminds the reader, before you flip out over killer robots, look at the humans in the mix. What are they doing? Are people with different agendas pushing this new technology too far?  Which human motivations, political pressures and weaknesses are being  prioritized or ignored and what are the consequences?

Counterproductive policy concerns might be a nice way of saying, “With each new strike, the potential for major blow back grows.” The issue of precedent setting drones policy really hit home to me when the Chair of an oversight committee asks,

“Think about what our attitude will be when other nations do this. What would we think about a North Korean drone killing somebody in Seoul or a Chinese drone killing a Chinese dissident in San Francisco?”

That’s a great question. Here are others, “What if your spouse was the collateral damage of that San Francisco strike? How far would you go to get back at the people responsible or involved?” With our drone program we are making new angry people every day.

In the book a major drug dealer is killed by a drone strike in Vienna.  His son decides to make his vengeance personal, he wants to make the people flying the drones experience what people like him feel.

The book lays out in detail one possible way a drug cartel/terrorist alliance might hit back.  It involves Ukrainian hackers, Zero-day software exploits, GPS hacking, Pakistani pilots, Russian Stinger-like missiles, a duped cable news network team, al Quada sleeper cells in the US, model airplanes, car insurance databases and Facebook.

The specific method of overriding military GPS  to civilian GPS, has probably already been addressed or Clarke would not have used it. However, the premise remains. People are angry, smart and they will come after us. We have a lot of non-hardened networks of information.  Our oceans won’t protect us.

The warning of the book isn’t,  ‘Fix that whole military GPS vs. civilian GPS thing.” but, “Technical weakness will be exploited. Every time you stray from your core mission more vulnerabilities open up.”  Many characters make the point that these are extremely effective tools so many different groups want to use them. But not every nail needs the head side of the hammer, sometimes the claw side is more effective.

And to outsiders a message might be, “Yes, organizations complain about certain rules and regulations in general, but many do understand that the rules can protect them from their own worst impulses.”  We shouldn’t give up on reminding America of our ideals, they protect in other ways.

The ending of the book is not pretty, some disasters are averted, but vengeance was also extracted. When I watch Stargate or other SF time travel stories, I always want to know:

  • Given this current scenario, what do other paths look like?
  • What has to be done now so this timeline doesn’t come to pass?
  • Who is blocking that change? How do we convince them to change?
  • How do we prepare for the blow back that we know is coming?
  • What is the worst thing that we could do? Why will we do it?
  • What is the best thing we could do? Why won’t we do it?

In Clarke’s afterword he explains the failures and frustrations in trying to capture or kill al Qaeda long before 9/11. 

In the book the head of a specialized intelligence agency is dealing with the deaths of some of his associates, “..he blamed himself. Failure sat on his shoulders like twenty pound weights. It ate at his gut like an acid. It kept him awake like that damn Provigil pill. It caused him to think that nothing was worthwhile, especially him.”

Later, “There’s no great feeling of accomplishment when you kill bad guys, knowing that there will just be more of them and you or someone else will have to do it again and again. There’s just a feeling of emptiness.”

This is a fictional character speaking about lessons learned. What does he wish his insider friends and outsider community needs to hear now? What should they do now? And finally, are we doomed to accept the scenario and the feelings of worthlessness and emptiness that it will bring, or is there another path?

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